Remarks of Amb. Roberto R. Romulo: “ASEAN at 50: The Way Forward”

Opening Remarks

By Ambassador Roberto Romulo Chairman,

Carlos P. Romulo Foundation for Peace and Development


Good morning.

Welcome to this Conference on “ASEAN@Fifty:The Way Forward”.

They say that Fifty is the new Thirty. In other words, the half-century point in the life of humans and institutions does not signal the onset of senility and sclerosis, but rather a renewed push of energy, but this time, leavened with experience and directed by wisdom.

From its humble beginnings with modest aspirations, ASEAN today has become a respected member of the global community and recognized for its central role in setting the agenda for the Southeast Asian region.

Today, we have become the ASEAN Ten with a combined population of over 600 million and with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion. We are now the world’s fifth largest economy. Projections are that with one of the fastest growth rates, ASEAN will be the fourth largest economy by 2050, overtaking the EU and Japan.

As ASEAN’s political and economic cohesiveness through growth and integration became ever more evident, so did its voice on the world stage. ASEAN’s views were increasingly courted on matters pertaining to Southeast Asia and beyond. Over the decades, with patience and perseverance, ASEAN built from scratch an impressive regional system for wide-ranging  engagement of all kinds. Today, this includes individual bilateral dialogue partnerships with the key world powers; a regional group with the three Northeast Asian partners called the ASEAN Plus 3; the only pan-regional security consultation mechanism, namely, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); and the region’s only top-level grouping for comprehensive dialogue, the East Asia Summit (EAS).

In other words ASEAN, as a collectivity, rose as a Middle Power in regional and even global affairs. In doing so, ASEAN played a clever game. It maneuvered between competing, jealous and far stronger external powers and largely insulated Southeast Asia from the more baleful consequences of superpower rivalry once the Vietnam War was over.

Somewhat later, ASEAN members got on the express train of globalization and, regardless of their individual domestic political systems, made a success of the trip. They also came to realize that the massive forces of globalization would help drive ASEAN’s deeper integration, regionally and globally, and this they embraced with great enthusiasm. This state of affairs was allowed to develop by relative peace and stability in the region, secured by Pax Americana, by which we mean a coalition of like-minded countries led by the United States.

Well this state of bliss in certainty is no longer with us. We now live in a world ripe with uncertainties. Although years in the making, what happened in quick succession in 2017 was simply breathtaking in speed and unpredictability. At its root is the growing number of people who have come to the conclusion that globalization is not what it was cut out to be – that all boats rise with the rising tide – and have expressed those sentiments in the ballot boxes.  Brexit put  the brakes on a seemingly unstoppable march towards European  enlargement and fuller integration. President Trump was voted into office on an “America First” platform. The retreat from the U.S. traditional role as leader of the “free world”, has opened the door for other powers to fill the vacuum. China’s economic clout has translated into the geopolitical sphere. President Xi Jin Ping is now carrying the torch on globalization and climate change. The world has moved on from a unipolar center of power to one where multipolar centers of geopolitical and economic powers compete for allegiance.

On the economic front, multilateralism is taking a back seat to bilateral deals. What was once a cover for protectionism – “fair trade” – has made its way back to respectability in the WTO and APEC lexicon. At the same time, the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution. including AI and robotics presents both threats and opportunities. While it will have a transformative impact on production and consumption it can also lead to job displacements and to vulnerability to damaging cyberattacks.

These developments threaten and undermine the very foundation on which ASEAN built its prosperity and enabled it to assure peace and stability in the region. Moreover ASEAN’s role as a regional player has been questioned by our friends and observers who think that the ASEAN-10 does not even know what “ASEAN centrality” means in the political arena. To them ASEAN has allowed itself to be unduly influenced by the interplay of the dynamics between powers in Southeast Asia without thinking of its integral regional interest.. There is the perception that individual members will gravitate or have gravitated towards the alignment that serve their individual interest unmindful of the over-all effects on the member countries and on ASEAN cohesiveness.

ASEAN is in one of the most important maritime territories globally and therefore as a consequence, in the area of regional political and maritime security, ASEAN has an important role more than ever. As it faces the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution and growing income inequity, it should perhaps remember that these economic and technological movements will be impacted by serious developments in the maritime area. ASEAN must therefore contribute to a deeper discussion of its maritime domain including that of a region beyond the boundaries of the South China Sea. In this regard, ASEAN should consider that there are other maritime powers near it—Japan, Australia, India, and not just China or the United States. These  other  maritime powers have their owninterest in the SCS region and they are keenly watching ASEAN’s actions.

Leading a deeper discussion on maritime domain and maritime security is crucial to ASEAN’s own objective to maintain peace and prosperity

The maritime domain is the most important area that needs ASEAN fullest attention at the moment if one sees where all the economic and political dots are connected to. One will just have to consider that climate change that has affected marine resources compounded by government-sanctioned human activities in the Sea has contributed to environmental degradation in the SCS. These will inevitably lead to food insecurity and ultimately to human insecurity that can undermine all the economic accomplishments of ASEAN and derail all its plans..

Climate change in all its effects is upon us. ASEAN is particularly vulnerable  to drought, rising sea levels, degradation of marine resources, and natural disasters. Coping with these challenges at the national level is no longer sufficient. It will require an ASEAN-wide effort. And coping or mitigating these challenges will need a stronger definition of ASEAN’s maritime domain and its core interests that should not be changed without the consent of the whole ASEAN.

These are some of the major challenges that ASEAN must respond to if it is to remain true to its Founding Fathers’ vision of ASEAN representing “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”

Does ASEAN as constructed at present have the wherewithal to respond to these continually evolving challenges effectively? With speed and agility but without sacrificing its cohesion?

[The principles of non-interference and decision-making by consensus have undoubtedly been responsible for ASEAN’s success in uniting a region made up of a mosaic of languages, religions, racial origins, cultures, political ideology and historical antecedents.

But if ASEAN is to achieve its full potential as a Middle Power, ASEAN must also work on stronger legal standards and obligations for its members as it reviews its principles of non-interference and decision making by consensus.

On matters relating to economic issues, the “ASEAN minus x” mode has been applied in terms of allowing for deviations such as gradual and delayed participation but then again consensus is still required for the core issue from which they arise.

Can this mode be applicable to political and foreign policy issues as well? As  it is, decision by consensus has prevented ASEAN from developing a two- fisted (remember we are now ten) approach in dealing with the non-ASEAN world in coping with internal threats to peace and stability. ]

One final point that I think is very important but often overlooked: ASEAN’s founding fathers were wise enough to recognize that the foundation of the organization’s ability to achieve what it set out to “lies in an abiding respect for justice and the rule of law and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter”. This is the    great leveler from which a middle power like ASEAN can draw its strength. Failure to uphold these principles – even from one member – can undermine ASEAN’s collective will.

I leave you with these conundrums which no doubt our formidable cast of thought leaders – you in the audience included – will lead us to find answers over the course of the next day and a half. The goal is to provide meaningful inputs to the ongoing conversation among our Leaders as they chart the course of ASEAN into the future.

This event is the outcome of the close collaboration of the organizers – the ASEAN-Institutes of Strategic and International Studies consortium under leadership of Pak Jusuf Wanandi, the Stratbase ADR Institute and my own organization, The Carlos P. Romulo Foundation. And staging this would not have been possible without the support of our sponsors. I thank them all very much. We are gratified that you appreciate the value of this conversation on ASEAN’s future.

And now I would like to start the main conference proceedings by introducing our Keynote Speaker, the Honorable Han Sung Joo.

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